Dear Dr. Jann,
I cannot coParent with my difficult ex! He gives me no credit and thinks our children have turned out well only because of his influence. In coParenting counseling the therapist suggested he was a narcissist. He laughed and walked out. What do I do?
Well, that’s certainly the behavior of a narcissist—believing he is right or superior to an expert. coParenting is difficult as it is but it’s even more difficult with a narcissist. It’s a diagnosis that gets thrown around a lot when people break-up, because exes are hard to deal with, but that does not necessarily make you ex a narcissist, they may exhibit one or two narcissistic traits but are not a true narcissist, so be careful not to throw around that world needlessly.
First, let’s define exactly what a narcissist is — Common characteristics are that they exaggerate their own importance and are preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence or ideal romance. A narcissist believes he or she is special and can only be understood by other special people or institutions. On the surface they can be extremely charming, but require constant attention and admiration from others. They are master manipulators to get what they want, and their partners find themselves wondering if they themselves are crazy because the narcissists makes them feel as such for even questioning what they say. Perhaps the most disappointing characteristic is that a true narcissist disregards the feelings of others and lacks empathy. And, even though they believe they are better than the average person, they are often envious of others or believe other people are envious of them.
You can only imagine how difficult, if impossible, it might be to co-parent with someone who manifests those traits. coParenting takes compromise, narcissists have trouble with compromise because they know they are right.
So, what do you do if you find your child’s other parent is a true narcissist?
- You may not be able to coParent. Parallel Parenting (see definition below) may be more appropriate.
- Minimize contact. Narcissists think they are smarter and will constantly try to engage you in a battle of wits to make them feel superior. In response, the other parent tries to stick up for themselves—which only fuels the narcissists’ fire and it becomes a vicious cycle.
- Establish firm boundaries. A narcissist will constantly check your boundaries, believing their needs or desires are more important. Establish a structured environment with consequences for checking boundaries. ie: 15 minutes late without notification and their parenting time is postponed until next time.
- Teach and model positive behavior and coping skills to your children. That means stay calm, pleasant, and unemotional when dealing with the narcissist and the children are around. This may seem impossible, but a narcissistic ex wants to keep you engaged and is looking for that emotional intensity. Consider the impact on your children and never get sucked into a hostile tete-a-tete at exchanges.
- Keep interaction between homes at a minimum when your child is in your custody, and vice versa — unless there is an emergency. Never bar a child from talking to the other parent, but know that interaction may bring on a confrontation. By the same token, don’t make your child the messenger. It will triangulate communication and you child will end up in the middle trying to discern which parent is right and which parent is wrong. If you must, speak directly to the narcissist in a manner that does not invite debate. Email is best.
- Nurture your child’s self-confidence. Teach them to know that they are okay just the way they are. As a child grows, the narcissistic parent often stops seeing the child as a distinct individual with feelings and needs that must be nurtured. The child is seen an extension of the parent and views anything other than their wants and needs as selfish or disobedient. The child then feels like they can never do anything right and gets negative reinforcement for just being themselves. For the child to get approval he or she must become a mind reader, anticipate the unspoken need of the parent and approval is then offered based on whether or not the child has satisfied the narcissistic parent’s need.
- Do not criticize your ex in front of your child. Ex-etiquette for parents rule #3, Don’t badmouth. Narcissistic behavior can be devastating, but children are not equipped to deal with the psychological battle of wits, no matter how smart of mature you think they are. Badmouthing backfires.
Parallel parenting is an arrangement in which divorced parents coParent by means of disengaging from each other and have limited direct contact because they have demonstrated that they are unable to communicate with each other in a respectful manner. Within such an arrangement, parents agree on major decisions regarding children’s upbringing (should our child be vaccinated or get braces?) but separately decide the logistics of routine, day-to-day parenting.